Dukes County Superior Court celebrates anniversary
Last Wednesday the Dukes County Superior Courtroom benches were all occupied, but not with the usual suspects. Instead, students from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown School joined justices, court officials and officers, attorneys, law enforcement personnel, and community members for an educational program in commemoration of the Massachusetts Superior Court's 150th anniversary.
Superior Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Rouse made a special trip to the Island for the event. In keeping with tradition, Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack, dressed formally in a black tailcoat, picked her up at the ferry and escorted her to Edgartown.
Acting as the "court crier" and wielding a tall white ceremonial staff, Sheriff McCormack announced Chief Justice Rouse's entrance into the courtroom at 11 am. Joined by Superior Court Justice Cornelius Moriarty, 2nd, and First Justice of the Edgartown District Court H. Gregory Williams, she led a lively and entertaining discussion about the workings of the Superior and District Courts for the students and courtroom audience.
Clerk of courts Joseph Sollitto Jr., District Court clerk/ magistrate Liza Williamson, and Dukes County Bar Association President Martin V. Tomassian Jr., were seated at the clerk's bench. Several attorneys filled the jury box and the courtroom's front row benches.
The student group included Oak Bluffs School eighth graders and their teachers Amie Lukowitz, Doreen Marino, Eve Heyman from Oak Bluffs School, and Edgartown School Moot Court team members, accompanied by their mentor, Attorney Charles A. Morano.
"We really want to hear from you out there," Chief Justice Rouse said, as she left the bench to stand closer to the students. Instead of lecturing, she involved the students by asking them questions and helping with the answers, as needed.
Chief Justice Rouse has served on the Superior Court since 1985 and was named Chief Justice in 2004. Last week she was reappointed to a five-year term. Providing some history for the anniversary commemoration, Chief Justice Rouse noted that when the Superior Court was created in 1859, there were 10 judges,1 Chief Justice and 9 associate justices. They rode the circuit by horseback throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with their law books in their saddlebags and their clerks following behind.
Today, the Massachusetts Superior Court has 82 judges, the chief justice noted. How many are women, she asked the students? Looking at her and figuring the answer must be obvious, a boy answered, "One?"
Opening Day at Dukes County Superior Court
The first session of Dukes County Superior Court was held on Monday, September 26, 1859. Court crier S.S. Daggett cried the court open at around half past three in the afternoon. Richard Pease served as clerk of the courts, and Isaiah Pease, as the high sheriff.
The first case heard, James D. Peekes versus Presbury Norton, was an action of contract to recover $13.11 for services as an auctioneer.
Clerk of Courts Joseph Sollitto, Jr., a self-professed history buff, provided this information, which he found published in old articles in the Vineyard Gazette.
Actually, there are 31, Chief Justice Rouse told him, and the first woman judge was appointed to the Superior Court in 1959.
Judge Moriarty and Judge Williams teamed up for their part of the program, bantering back and forth with the ease of old friends who once tried cases together in courts in western Massachusetts.
"What happens in here is the administration of justice," Judge Moriarty told the students, adding with a smile, "I hope this is your first time here."
"I recognize some of these faces," Judge Williams joked.
Calling attention to the white staff that Sheriff McCormack carried, Judge Williams said traditionally a sheriff used it to tap people out on the street to come in and serve on a jury. The Dukes County Court officers still use the staffs and cross two of them in front of the closed doors to the room where a jury is deliberating.
Mr. Tomassian added that the staffs originated in England, and that he saw them in use in the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court in London.
"The court officers there called them 'tip staffs,' and if someone was nodding off or misbehaving, they would get a tap with the tip staff," he said.
To give the students a sense of what was going on in the world when Superior Court began in 1859, Mr. Tomassian recalled that construction started on the Suez Canal and Big Ben first chimed in the new clock tower in the Palace of Westminster in London.
On Martha's Vineyard in 1859, the first campground cottage was built in Wesleyan Grove in Oak Bluffs, the Grange Hall was built in West Tisbury, and the Gay Head Baptist Church started, Mr. Tomassian said.
In talking about his profession and attorneys who serve the court, Mr. Tomassian said that he is very proud to be a lawyer. Most lawyers have never been in a courtroom and do not practice law like it is portrayed on television, Mr. Tomassian told the students. "If you want to be a lawyer, you can call my office and follow me around for a day," he offered.
Chief Justice Rouse said that approximately 60 attorneys practice at the Dukes County Courthouse. Judge Moriarty asked the attorneys present to stand and be recognized. "The citizens of Martha's Vineyard are very lucky to have such highly skilled lawyers," he said.
Although Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe was unable to attend, assistant district attorney Robert Moriarty, Judge Moriarty's son, and assistant district attorney Laura Marshard were there to represent him.
As one of 13 elected clerks of courts in Massachusetts, Mr. Sollitto explained his multiple roles as the clerk magistrate to the Superior Court, clerk to the Supreme Judicial Court, and clerk to the court of Dukes County commissioners.
During a question and answer session, a student asked the judges whether they had experienced any unusual courtroom events. Chief Justice Rouse said one defendant in her courtroom in Newburyport attempted to escape by jumping head-first through a closed window. A court officer who tackled him outside happened to be a former Olympic wrestler.
Along similar lines, Mr. Sollitto said a man jumped out of a restroom window in the Dukes County Courthouse, broke his ankle, and managed to hobble to St. Andrews Episcopal Church, where he was found hiding under the altar.
In a follow-up call this week, Mr. Sollitto said he was impressed by how well prepared the students were and the knowledge they demonstrated. He credited Judge Moriarty's wife Geri, the former principal of the Oak Bluffs School, with help in arranging the program.
Chief Justice Rouse spearheaded plans for the Superior Court's yearlong 150th anniversary commemoration. Educational programs and events, such as mock trials, reenactments of famous trials, open houses, and historic tours were held in counties across the state.
The Massachusetts Bar Foundation and judges of the Superior Court provided funding for the year-long program.